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At One With Nature - Sue Parker explores the variable nature of damage

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, April 2013. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve.
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I was here during last November’s tornado and experienced some of its devastating impact. Lives and livelihoods were endangered as properties near my home were severely damaged, trees and shrubs torn from the ground, and fences and hedges flattened. Many of my planned activities had to be cancelled due to road closures and continuing uncertainty about the weather.

Anybody visiting now who had not witnessed the ferocity of that storm must find it hard to believe that it isn’t merely a figment of our imaginations: roofs have been re-tiled, fallen trees replaced, fences re-erected... and now that the sun is shining the countryside is blooming in unprecedented splendour. That the Algarve’s wildflowers coped so well with the tornado is hardly remarkable (a toppled tree creates a niche in which annual seeds can thrive), but their recovery from the even more damaging effects of a three-month drought which ended in April last year is nothing short of astonishing.

Green-winged Orchid

The Green-winged Orchid - Anacamptis morio: a true barometer of healthy ecosystems. Thriving in the Algarve, further north agricultural chemicals have all but eradicated this lovely wildflower

The Algarve’s wildlife and wildflowers are why many of us live here. I just love the flowers - wild orchids in particular - and was deeply saddened to see the black devastation caused by the drought of spring 2012. It was therefore with trepidation that I returned this season. Would the orchid numbers and diversity be reduced? Would they even appear at all? Would we see those spectacular wildflower meadows that are the essence of spring in the Algarve? And what about the aquatic plants – could they possibly have survived the near total desiccation of our riverbeds? To my immense joy the answer to all of these questions is an emphatic yes. The Algarve’s wildflowers have not merely survived; they have bounced back in greater glory than I have seen in any of my previous 12 Algarve springs.

All this got me thinking about the nature of damage. There’s damage and there is irreversible damage - destruction. Mother Nature’s violent tantrums soon get fixed, for as the saying goes ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. In the aftermath of the drought and the tornado I think I finally understand that maxim. Nature cannot return things to exactly how they were before her violent outburst, but her ‘fix’ always enables life-support systems to continue functioning – not just for plants and wildlife, but for people too.

Flowers are essential to the survival of insects that in turn are the pollinators of not only wildflowers but also many of our own food crops. The worldwide collapse in bee populations in particular is such a threat to the future of mankind that it needs urgent action at government level.

Below - there are no beehives in the corner of this field and nothing that Mother Nature can do to brighten the monotonous manmade landscape. This chemically-altered meadow in Britain would take decades to recover its wildflower heritage.

A meadow in Wales

Because of the fabulous plant life in the Algarve, insects thrive here. Delicious honey is made in brightly coloured beehives in the corners of fields, and human and animal food crops can be produced in harmony with the natural world. Here in the Algarve, we have a major advantage: plenty of sunshine to enable plants to photosynthesise (make their own food). Most Algarvian farmers keep weeds (a less than friendly term for those wildflowers so vital to our insects) in check by traditional hard work that not only keeps farm workers fit but provides the rest of us with healthier food, untainted by insecticidal toxins.

A meadow in the Algarve

Above - the rich diversity of Algarve farmland a year after cultivation.

Further north, where sunshine is at a premium, the agricultural industry substitutes fertiliser for sunlight, and herbicides for hoes. In the short term, intensive chemical intervention provides inflated yields beyond what Mother Nature could produce - even down here in the sunny southwest of Europe. However, Northern Europe’s preoccupation with growing animal fodder as vast monocultures of rye grass - a plant that requires no insects for its pollination but demands heavy doses of chemicals - means that over great expanses of land insects cannot find food to sustain the vital role they play in our lives. (We are also perilously close to having exhausted the planet’s stocks of phosphorous, a key ingredient of artificial fertilisers.) The consequences of such short-termism are terrifying. Unlike droughts and tornados, this is the kind of damage from which Nature cannot recover – at least not in any timescale meaningful to mankind.

Why do we do it? To support our often grossly-inflated view of what we really need to live on, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that overconsumption is threatening our very existence rather than prolonging and enhancing it.

So in the midst of the awful economic crisis that has hurt the Algarve so badly and causes us to mutter into our Bicas about the ineffectiveness of government, let’s celebrate one thing this country does well: its traditional farming methods are good for wildflowers, insects, birds and other animals – including us!

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Wild Orchids of the AlgarveAlgarve Wildlife, the natural year, Second EditionWildflowers in the Algarve